Category Archives: Faith
Jesus once said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2). In other words, the basis by which we condemn others will inevitably be used to expose any hypocrisy on our part. When church leaders and “family values” political candidates abandon their families or are caught in extramarital affairs, their opponents are perfectly right to scoff at their so-called “family values.”
In much the same way, it is legitimate to apply to Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists the same measure they use when they accuse someone of being “anti-gay.” In yesterday’s post, I examined what these folks really mean by “anti-gay.” They do not mean that someone bears open hostility toward those who self-identify as homosexual. On the contrary, they apply this label to anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda. As I wrote yesterday:
It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”
LGBT activists have been very careful to frame their agenda as “a campaign for full LGBT equality” rather than as an attack on Christianity, the Bible, or so-called “traditional family values.” They would understandably chafe at the accusation that they are “anti-Christian,” “anti-Bible,” or “anti-traditional family.” Yet if we apply the same standard they use to determine who is “anti-gay,” how can we conclude anything else? If being “anti”-something means falling short of total agreement or unqualified acceptance, then LGBT activists are clearly “anti-Christian” according to their own standards of judgment.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not think it is helpful to brand LGBT activists as “anti-Christian” any more than I think it is helpful for them to brand those who disagree with their worldview as “anti-gay.” Using such inflammatory labels does nothing to promote dialogue or understanding. I’m simply trying to make the point that if we will condemn as “anti-” anyone who disagrees with our worldview, we are gearing up to fight the kind of sectarian wars which result in many casualties and few converts.
The recent brouhaha over Chick-Fil-A’s “anti-gay” stance has reached something of a crescendo. Tomorrow, August 1, 2012, has been designated Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day by television talk-show host Mike Huckabee, who is encouraging people to support the company by dining there. Meanwhile, gay-rights activists are organizing “kiss-in” protests at Chick-Fil-A restaurants on Friday, August 3.
Chick-Fil-A has been criticized as “anti-gay” by Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists for some time now, but the latest dust-up appears to center around two things. First, a group called EqualityMatters, which describes itself as “a campaign for full LGBT equality”, published a list of so-called “anti-gay groups” to which Chick-Fil-A’s charitable foundation has contributed. Second, in an interview with Baptist Press, Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy described the company as “guilty as charged” with respect to its support of the “traditional family.”
It is Cathy’s comments in particular that seem to have LGBT activists seeing red, but they must be careful how they express that outrage. While they can be quite vitriolic in their criticism of Cathy’s statements, they must nevertheless be careful not to dispute his First Amendment right to make such statements. Consequently, many of Cathy’s critics have retreated to the seemingly more secure position of criticizing the company’s financial support of “anti-gay” organizations. I’ve heard a number of Cathy’s critics say something like, “Sure he has the right to say whatever he wants. The real issue is that Chick-Fil-A gives money to support an ‘anti-gay’ agenda!”
The disturbing thing to me in all of this is that this “anti-gay” label is never clearly defined. On the surface, to be “anti-gay” sounds like it means to bear open hatred and hostility toward homosexuals. The Cathys have protested that they are not “anti-gay,” by which they mean that they will not deny service to homosexual customers or deny employment to applicants on the basis of their homosexuality. But that is not what LGBT activists mean by “anti-gay.”
Look at EqualityMatters’ list of so-called “anti-gay groups,” and it becomes clear that they regard as “anti-gay” any person or group which:
- understands the Bible to condemn homosexual acts as sinful
- affirms the value of “traditional marriage” (generally understood to mean monogamous heterosexual marriage for life)
- disagrees that “marriage” should be legally redefined to include homosexual couples
- believes that homosexuals can and should leave the “homosexual lifestyle”
- (apparently even worse) attempts to help people leave the “homosexual lifestyle”
In short, LGBT activists regard anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda as “anti-gay.” Any Christian ministry which promotes a biblical understanding of sexuality is therefore “anti-gay.” It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”
I believe many—if not most—Christians who oppose gay marriage or otherwise disagree with the agenda of LGBT activists do so not because they bear personal animosity toward those who self-identify as “gay.” Most Christians are horrified at the antics of the Westboro Baptists who seem to delight in declaring that “God hates fags.” Most Christians would rightly oppose the persecution of homosexuals or the abrogation of their Constitutional protections. However, many Christians, no matter how tolerant or willing to “live and let live,” are constrained by their understanding of Scripture to regard homosexuality as a “lifestyle” which cannot be condoned, promoted, or embraced. They are likewise constrained by their understanding of Scripture to want to strengthen the “traditional family” by opposing divorce, pornography, infidelity, spousal abuse, and anything else which contributes to its disintegration.
As far as I can see, the Cathys’ position on these matters is hardly exceptional. It is a position consistent with their Christian worldview and their understanding of the Bible. They are only “anti-gay” insofar as their Christian worldview disagrees with the worldview of the LGBT activists, and their only sin appears to be that they lend support to those who agree with their worldview.
Because I too hold to a Christian worldview, I will be supporting the Cathys by taking my family to Chick-Fil-A tomorrow. It may mean that LGBT activists will likewise label me as “anti-gay,” but I reserve the right to disagree with their definition of the term.
Lately I’ve been writing an article on crucifixion for a project I’m working on. This rather gory subject has led me to examine Old Testament passages which refer to hanging someone “on a tree.” These passages may refer to a number of things: hanging the corpse of someone who is already dead as a very public warning to others, actually impaling a living victim on a pointed stake and letting him die slowly, or crucifying someone by suspending them by their hands or arms. While it’s not always clear which form of “hanging” is in view, the Bible is very clear that any form of hanging on a tree is a sign of divine judgment:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)
In examining all these passages about hanging, I noticed a number of instances of people being hanged in the books of Samuel.
After Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, they cut off his corpse’s head and hang his body from the walls of a nearby citadel. In order to rescue Saul’s body from this accursed fate, some of his most loyal subjects then embark on a covert mission to recover his body and give him a proper burial (1 Samuel 31:8–13).
With Saul and his eldest sons now dead, David and Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth begin fighting a civil war for the throne of Israel. This war comes to an end when two rogues, acting on their own, murder Ish-Bosheth in his bed and take his severed head to David. They think David will reward them for this, but David punishes them for shedding innocent blood by killing them, cutting off their hands and feet, and publicly hanging their mutilated corpses (2 Samuel 4:12).
When David’s son Absalom rebels against David and seizes the throne, David eventually regroups and defeats Absalom’s men on the field of battle. As Absalom flees through the forest on his mule, he gets his “head” entangled in an oak tree and is left dangling in midair as his mule runs out from beneath him. When David’s men eventually find Absalom in this predicament, they murder him (2 Samuel 18:10–17).
This last passage is especially rich with the symbolism of poetic justice. While Absalom’s hair is not specifically mentioned in this passage (only his “head”), his previously mentioned pride in his long hair (2 Samuel 14:25–26) leads the reader to assume that it was his hair that got entangled in the branches of the tree. The mule he was riding is the symbolic mount of kings, yet it apparently rejects his kingship when it abandons him. Finally, Absalom’s getting hung in a tree shows that he is under God’s curse for rebelling against his father and God’s anointed king.
In fact, all of these “hangings,” as a symbol of divine judgment, reinforce the central message of the books of Samuel, which is that David is the rightful king of Israel because God Himself placed David on the throne.
If we set aside for a moment that the books of Samuel are part of the Bible, we can appreciate the fact that they are a brilliant work of political propaganda. David’s enemies would have had plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of his reign. They would have argued that the descendants of Saul are the rightful heirs to the throne and that David wrongfully seized the throne through civil war and assassination. They would also have celebrated Absalom’s rebellion as a sign that David was finally getting his just deserts.
Against these views the writer of Samuel makes it abundantly clear that Saul and his family were rejected by God in favor of David. Saul’s downward spiral and repeated failures end in his suicidal death and the public hanging of his corpse—abundant evidence that he is under God’s curse. Yet far from celebrating his death, David kills the foreigner who falsely claims he had assisted in Saul’s suicide (2 Samuel 1:1-16). Likewise, Saul’s heir Ish-Bosheth is shown repeatedly to be unfit for rule until he is eventually murdered in his bed. Again, David does not reward the murderers of his political rival but kills them and hangs their corpses publicly. Then there’s Absalom, who reveals his accursed state by getting himself hung in a tree. Over and over again, David’s enemies conveniently die in an accursed state.
Some people dismiss these symbolic evidences of divine judgment as being too convenient to be historically accurate. The assumption seems to be that if these subtle details all serve to advance the book’s purpose of justifying David’s kingship, then they are more likely to be the clever embellishments of the author than a true reporting of actual events. This is why so many “Bible as literature” courses seem to question the historical accuracy of the Bible. While they claim not to be concerned with historical accuracy at all and that they are merely analyzing the literary aspects of Biblical narratives, the subtle implication is that if the Bible’s history is not completely disinterested and unbiased, it cannot be completely trusted.
Biblical narratives such as the books of Samuel or the four Gospels are anything but disinterested catalogs of historical events. On the contrary, they offer theological interpretations of those events and present the historical details within that theological framework. Recognizing that framework and appreciating the literary artistry with which it is presented does not require us to conclude that the historical details are nothing more than clever fictions. We can appreciate the Bible as literature while also recognizing it as the Word of God.
After all, why would we expect God’s Word to be anything less than a literary masterpiece?
How God Brings Good Out of Tragic Loss
[This article was first published on Memorial Day, 2004 in response to an article in the Washington Post Magazine.]
Luther and Warhol
Martin Luther once wrote that “a theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.” Andy Warhol is often quoted as saying that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” What do these two quotes have to do with each other? Simply that the truth of them both has been profoundly driven home to me this Memorial Day.
First, let me give you a brief account of my—or more precisely, my family’s—fifteen minutes of fame. The cover of this week’s Washington Post Magazine features a photograph of a young World War II soldier in uniform, along with a black-and-white snapshot of a young woman with her infant son. The title reads, “The Soldier in My Attic: A yellowed paper discovered in the rafters after 60 years leads to a forgotten hero, his lost son and the meaning of sacrifice.” That “forgotten hero” is my grandfather. His “lost son” is my father. And the woman in the snapshot who loved them both is my grandmother.
It’s not every day you get a reporter for the Washington Post piecing together your family history for you, but that is precisely what happened in our case, and the blessing it has been will be felt long after our fifteen minutes of fame are over. Peter Perl, a reporter who has lived in the Washington D.C. area for years, went into his attic one afternoon to measure it for new insulation. In the process, he discovered a tattered cardboard cylinder containing the personal effects and Purple Heart certificate of Second Lieutenant George Charles Oertel Jr., a soldier killed in World War II. Curious to find out who this soldier was, Mr. Perl embarked on a process of discovery which has helped to fill in some of the blanks in my family’s history and to acquaint my dad with the biological father who died when he was just six months old.
I would, of course, encourage everyone to read the aforementioned article, not merely because it concerns my family, but because it is a powerfully written and fitting Memorial Day tribute to the soldiers who have sacrificed—and who continue to sacrifice—everything for the cause of freedom.
By now it should be clear why I quoted Warhol’s comment about everyone enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, but Luther’s enigmatic statement about a theologian “dying and being damned” may take a little more explaining. I understand Luther to mean by this that a true theology must be worked out in the context of real life and refined in the crucible of facing death and its aftermath. Theology cannot merely be done by means of scholarly research and philosophical speculation, because it deals with questions of life, death, and the hope of salvation. The true theologian is one who can apply his theology to life, and whose life informs his theology.
My grandfather’s brief life and tragic death raise an important theological question: how could a good God allow such a promising young life to be cut short? It is a question we ask whenever we witness tragic loss, senseless suffering, or random catastrophe. If God is perfectly good and all-powerful, why does he permit such evils to take place? Theologians and philosophers refer to this question as the “problem of evil,” and it has puzzled mankind since the beginning of time. Assuming, however, that Luther was on to something, let’s use this real-life tragedy as a test-case for understanding the problem of evil. Can we make sense of such a senseless loss? Can we possibly see God’s hand in the midst of it?
A Tragic Loss
My grandfather’s brief life was one of tremendous promise, as I think anyone who reads the Washington Post article would agree. First, there was the promise of his individual potential. A gifted athlete, he had dreams of a professional baseball career after he returned from the war. As a soldier, he appears to have distinguished himself, going from enlisted man to Second Lieutenant during his training, and receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge for “exemplary conduct in action against the enemy.” As a young man, he was apparently deeply religious, very close to his family, and devoted to his young wife.
This last character trait brings us to another area of promise in this young man’s life: the promise of his family legacy. George Oertel Jr. had met and married Gabrielle Louise Hopping, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Brigadier General Andrew Hopping, while back home on leave. They got pregnant right away, and he was shipped out just before George Oertel III, my father, was born. Father and son never saw each other except in photographs, never got to toss the baseball George Jr. was so adept with, never got to live together as a family.
George Jr. was cut down by German artillery fire in an Italian village when my father was still a baby. His wife was a widow at the age of twenty, and she and my dad went to live with her parents for a couple of years. Eventually, she met and married Allen Lang, who adopted my father and changed his name to George Charles Lang.
It’s a Wonderful Death?
For all the reasons listed above, my grandfather’s death was a tragic loss that makes little sense. This loss is compounded when you consider that he was just one of many millions of young soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in that epic war. But what if that war had never happened? What if my grandfather had been allowed to grow old with his new wife and son? Asking these questions is a little like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse, but it’s an exercise that will help us come to terms with the “problem of evil” in a way that no logical syllogism could ever accomplish.
If World War II had never happened, if Adolf Hitler had been content with murdering his political rivals in Germany rather than embarking on a course of world conquest, it’s uncertain whether George Oertel Jr. would ever have met, much less married, Gabrielle Louise Hopping. Theirs was a whirlwind, war-time romance, and if it hadn’t been for that war, my father might never have been conceived. For that matter, if it weren’t for World War I, my grandmother likewise might never have been conceived, since she was the daughter of an American doughboy who married a French woman, my great-grandmother “Dee-Dee” (so called because my dad couldn’t pronounce Gabrielle). In a very real sense, I owe my life to the two costliest, most devastating wars in history.
Now, suppose my grandfather had survived the war and returned home. If that had happened, it is doubtful my father and his family would ever have moved to Florida. My grandfather’s family lived in the D.C. area, and he likely would have done the same. Even if he would have decided to move his family elsewhere, what are the chances he would have taken them to the small town of Winter Haven, Florida, where my father met my mother? My father moved there because that was the home of his adoptive father, Allen Lang. Had my grandfather lived, I might never have been born, my wife would be married to someone else, and my four beautiful children [now five] would never have come into this world. When that artillery shell exploded on July 11, 1944, it tragically ended a promising young life, but it also set into motion a chain of events for which I cannot help but be thankful.
Was it good that my grandfather was killed a few short months before his twenty-fifth birthday? Absolutely not. But can it be said that God has used that tragic event for His good purposes? I’d like to think it can. I’m not so sure my presence in the world can be considered an unqualified good. I’m certainly not a better man than the one whose blood runs through my veins. But when I look into the faces of David, Caleb, Bethany, and Alexa [and now also Josiah], I know that God has used my grandfather’s death to make the world a better place. My grandfather gave his life to stop fascism, and God has used his death to bring about new and wonderful life.
It’s Not Always So Easy
It’s admittedly not always so easy to see how God uses tragic events for His good purposes. My grandfather was cut down in his youth, but not before he had conceived a son who in turn has had two children and seven grandchildren [soon to be nine when my sister has her fourth child later this year]. There were countless other soldiers who died without leaving any descendants behind. Where is the good that came out of their deaths? Or what about my nephew, Chad, who developed leukemia at age four and died just weeks before his ninth birthday? Where is the good in that tragic loss? What about the thousands who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon on what would have been Chad’s twelfth birthday? How has God used that horrific event for good?
We may never know, or see, the countless ways God brings good out of evil, gain out of loss, or blessing out of tragedy. Yet we have two sources of assurance that God always intends for good what man and his fallen world have intended for evil (Genesis 50:20). First, we have the example of the cross: how the salvation of many was accomplished through the greatest evil the world has ever known. Second, we have the assurance of God’s Word, which tells us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). We may not always see how, but we have no reason to doubt that God will be true to this promise. The cross of Christ, and the empty tomb, should be all the evidence we need. And if we look closely at those tragedies which touch our own lives, we may just catch a glimpse of God’s good purposes in them, and find reason to give thanks even in the midst of our tears.
This morning Jo Jo, our three-year-old, came into our bedroom with a little stack of LEGOs. Proudly announcing that this was his “channel changer,” he pointed it at the TV and began pressing it with his thumb. Intending to play along, I grabbed the real TV remote and began turning the TV on and off each time he pressed his toy remote. My wife looked over, smiled, and said to me, “You’re such a fun dad!”
Alas, it was fun until I explained to Jo Jo that his “channel changer” didn’t really control the TV; that I had been controlling it with the real “channel changer.” He got mildly frustrated with me and decided to hide my remote behind the curtain so he could be sure I wasn’t repeating the trick. Then he stood in front of the TV for several minutes pressing his LEGO remote. When it didn’t work he asked me to fix his remote so that it would work again. I explained the impossibility of that to him, then stepped out of the room for a minute. Moments later, I heard the TV come on, so I knew he had now begun using the real remote and finding that it worked.
When I came back in the room, a disappointed little boy brought me his LEGO remote and said, “Daddy, I don’t want this channel changer any more. It’s broken!”
I’ve learned my lesson. It is apparently unwise ever to play games with another man’s TV remote! Some things are just too close to our hearts.
As funny as this little scenario is, Jo Jo’s disappointment at not really being in control was real. It made me wonder how many times this same scenario is played out between us grownups and our heavenly Father.
The older I get, the more I come to realize how little in life I really have control over. Most of us tackle life with the expectation that if we work hard, use our talents, and behave responsibly we can be healthy, wealthy, wise, and happy. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that all our plans can easily be derailed by an unexpected illness, an accident, the foolish decisions and evil actions of other people, economic forces beyond our control, changes in the weather, and those huge natural disasters we usually describe as “acts of God.” How many of our personal triumphs and crowning achievements really amount to us benefitting from the gracious hand of God in ordering those circumstances we cannot control?
It is as if we’re pressing the buttons on our LEGO remotes while God stands behind us pressing the buttons on His real one. When we see the TV come on we think, “Look what I did!” We don’t realize that God is the one who is really in control, and that we should be expressing our gratitude to Him. The American revolutionaries who managed to defeat the most powerful nation on earth often spoke of the gracious hand of Divine Providence in fighting on their behalf, and when you consider how many of their victories depended on favorable weather and historical accidents it is easy to see why. Somehow when we face less overwhelming obstacles we find it easy to forget the hand of Providence and assume our LEGO remotes are working.
Proverbs 16:9 reminds us who is really in control:
A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.
We do well to remember that His “channel changer” is the only one that works.
During yesterday morning’s sermon, the preacher mentioned the late Dr. Roger Nicole, a brilliant French Swiss theologian whose scholarly accomplishments are too many for me to name. If Dr. Nicole ever reflected on his impact on the world, he might have looked to his many writings, the many students he taught, the churches he served, the sermons he preached, and the various other public activities he engaged in. He might also have looked to his influence over those with whom he had a private relationship: his family, his friends, and his colleagues. In such moments of reflection, however, Dr. Nicole would have been completely unaware of the profound impact he had on me.
Like so many others, I was once a student of Dr. Nicole’s. He taught the very first seminary course I ever took: a three- or four-week class called “Theological Foundations.” That was the only class I ever took with him. It was a great class, and it helped strengthen some of my theological positions, but it didn’t really convince me of anything I had not already come to believe through my own reading of the Bible. It was meant to be a foundational introduction to theological education, but it was soon replaced with another introductory course taught by a different professor. I doubt Dr. Nicole would have regarded that class as anything particularly noteworthy or exceptional.
Yet for me, it was the perfect class taught at the perfect time by the perfect man for the job. I had been a Religion major at a secular university, so I entered seminary a little battle-weary and professor-wary. I knew going in that my university professors would be teaching things antithetical to my own beliefs, but I willingly entered that crucible in order to have my faith refined. In the end, I found that my professors’ actual arguments were not that difficult to refute. The far more difficult challenge was dealing with The Sneer—that look of disdain some of them would give whenever a student dared to disagree with them. I saw other students succumb to The Sneer because they just couldn’t stand to have their professors look at them like they were stupid—and their faith became shipwrecked as a result.
Now, I was not terribly worried about whether my professors thought I was stupid—I knew to expect it going in. Even so, it can be exhausting facing The Sneer again and again for years on end. It can become a “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) that grows into a kind of anti-intellectualism. One begins to grow suspicious of anything scholarly or intellectual because of the arrogance of those who adopt The Sneer. By the time I graduated, Paul’s statement that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) seemed to me to mean that the life of the mind was diametrically opposed to the love of God.
Enter Dr. Nicole, who addressed each student as “Brozer” or “Seester” in a way that seemed absolutely genuine. Dr. Nicole was teaching some theological subjects which are often hotly contested, and there was one student in the class who strongly held an opposing viewpoint. As the class wore on, this student raised objections and challenging questions with ever-increasing hostility. I knew Dr. Nicole had heard those same objections a thousand times before, and if he had been one of my college professors he would have pulled out The Sneer and squashed that student like a bug. Instead, he would act as if this was the first time he had ever heard that objection raised, and he would say something like, “Well, Brozer, you raise an excellent point, but I think you’ll find …” It was at that point that he would very lovingly dismantle that student’s arguments—all the while affirming that the student should not be the least bit embarrassed for making them.
This, for me, was something new: a brilliant man whose brilliance was exceeded only by his gentleness, respect, and Christ-like love for others. Dr. Nicole restored my belief that one need not reject the life of the mind in order to cultivate a love for God. Rather, the more one pursues knowledge, the more one needs to be pursuing the love of Christ. Apart from the love of Christ, knowledge does indeed puff up. Yet bathed in Christ’s love, a deeper knowledge can become profitable for building others up in the faith.
Dr. Nicole could not have known that he was having such a profound impact on a student who sat there quietly watching his Christ-like disposition, and I never had occasion to tell him. I am, however, deeply grateful to have sat under a man in whom no sneer could be detected. His conduct in that class has had a ripple effect in my life that Dr. Nicole himself could not see on this side of heaven.
That should encourage all of us who wonder if we’re having any kind of influence for Christ in the world. Whether our impact is plain to see or we labor in relative obscurity, our faithfulness to demonstrate the love of Christ to others is sure to have a ripple effect we may never see on this side of heaven. Yet who knows? Perhaps in God’s economy those unseen ripples will prove to be the most profound impact we have in this world.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
—1 Timothy 3:15
In February of this year, Lisa and I traveled to Israel for a whirlwind tour of places we had previously only read about in the pages of the Bible. (Lisa’s mom went above and beyond by staying with “the gang” for two weeks.) When we returned home, I began writing a series of meditations in an attempt to process everything we had seen and experienced. The result is a 31-day devotional called Feet to Follow, Eyes to See which I hope to have published soon. This Christmas, I’d like to share with you the meditation I wrote about our visit to Bethlehem:
Ever seen a Christmas card depiction of Bethlehem? It is usually portrayed as a quaint little cluster of mud-brick buildings—most flat-roofed, but a few with graceful domes—surrounded by green fields dotted with grazing sheep. If it is shown at night, those domed roofs are silhouetted against a clear sky, brilliantly lit by the natal star. We imagine Bethlehem to be a peaceful place. We sing about Jesus’ birth on a silent, holy night. We’re so enamored with this fantasy of a peaceful nativity, that even when we imagine the baby Jesus waking to the sound of lowing cattle, we tell ourselves, “No crying he makes.”
A visit to modern Bethlehem presents you with quite a different picture. The area around Manger Square is noisy and chaotic, with Muslim street vendors hawking cheap jewelry and touristy kitsch. You bustle past them to arrive at the Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional location of Jesus’ birthplace. The building itself is a bewildering compound made up of two churches—one controlled by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Roman Catholics. The Grotto of the Nativity is located beneath the Greek Orthodox basilica.
Entering the grotto was an exercise in holding one’s ground as countless pilgrims tried to squeeze into the narrow doorway. I must confess I was more focused on preventing a pushy French couple from shouldering their way past us than I was on contemplating the birth of my Savior.
The floor and walls of the original cave are completely covered with marble and stone. A silver star marks the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus, and pilgrims crowd in to press their hands or lips against it. In order to enable the members of our tour group to snap unobstructed photos of it, we acted as blockers for each other, holding back the other pilgrims until each of us had taken a turn. I imagine they had to be thinking, “Who do these pushy Americans think they are?”
Of course, we were only there a few moments. We yielded the floor and were carried out of the Grotto by the inexorable flow of humanity.
Visitors who expect Bethlehem to be idyllic and pastoral are sure to be disappointed by the relative chaos of the place. All the people there are seemingly at cross-purposes with each other. Different religious groups control different areas of the site. Some Christians are there to venerate a spot they regard as sacred. Others merely want to visit the place where Jesus entered the world. Some Muslims want to profit from the tourism Jesus brings. Others want to assert the supremacy of Islam. Then there are the political tensions of this Palestinian area of Israel.
Modern Bethlehem is a far cry from what we see on Christmas cards, but it may be far closer to the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born. That Bethlehem was crowded with Jews who had traveled there to take part in a Roman census. Some of the local residents would have been thrilled at all the extra business, while others would have resented the disruption to their daily lives and the constant reminders of Roman supremacy. The Romans meanwhile, wanted to keep the peace and further their careers among a people who despised them. Mary and Joseph just wanted a place to have their baby. As it is today, first-century Bethlehem was all bustle and cross-purposes.
Jesus also arrived in Bethlehem with cross purposes: He “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), drawing them to Himself by being lifted up on the cross (John 12:32–33). Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus made it clear He had been born for that hour:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. … Now My soul is troubled. What should I say—Father, save Me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name! (John 12:23–24, 27–28)
Our Christmas card mythology presents us with a tranquil Bethlehem and a joyous nativity, but Christ’s birth foreshadows His cross. The death He died so that we might live is the reason we rejoice in His birth. Worship Him today for accomplishing His cross purposes for you.
While Lisa and I enjoyed every moment of our time in Israel, our greatest joy was returning home to our children. Whether your Christmas this year is as idyllic as a Christmas card Bethlehem, or as chaotic as the real one, we pray that you will cherish your family and worship your Savior.
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
Every year at Christmastime, we receive cards and letters from dear friends, family members, and people about whom I have to ask my wife, “How do we know these people again?” I’m sure you get them too. In the days before blogs and social media, cards and letters were how people kept up with each other, and the mailing of these things became somewhat obligatory around major holidays like Christmas. It’s a nice tradition, and I would argue that it’s still more fun to get something in the mail than it is to receive a push notification about someone else’s Facebook status. Yet there is also a darker side to this holiday custom: some people use it as an excuse to brag, and to do so quite shamelessly.
I figure it started innocently enough, with parents writing letters to grandparents telling them how much the kids had grown and what they were up to; but at some point, this sort of catching up turned toxic. Now people seem to think it okay to send letters which could reasonably be subtitled, “Christmas with the Perfects.” You know the kind of letter I mean: one which details Mr. Perfect’s business successes, each child’s athletic victories and extracurricular activities, and Mrs. Perfect’s ability to balance a million responsibilities while still finding time to knit sweaters for needy children in Outer Mongolia. Oh, and there’s usually a paragraph or two detailing the latest family vacation to Europe or Hawaii.
It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing good news or counting one’s blessings. I’ve read a few letters which manage to do that in an entertaining and heartwarming way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christmas letters simply read like an exaggerated résumé. They don’t give a real picture of the character of a family, but a carefully Photoshopped one in which every blemish has been removed. The net effect is to make people who are well aware of their own blemishes feel downright inferior.
Having read far too many “Christmas with the Perfects” letters, I’m determined never to write such a letter myself. Instead, I try to write a Christmas letter which reads more like a devotional than a yearly catalog of my family’s accomplishments. When I talk about my family, I try to give an honest glimpse into what life with the “Lang Gang” is really like. I would much rather share a funny story or two than boast about something we’ve done. After all, the best thing about my family is not the amount of time we spend atop some award podium, but the love we share and the Lord we serve. He’s the only “Perfect” worth bragging about—especially in a Christmas letter.
I love Christmastime. When the house is all decorated and lit up, it has a warm and magical feel. We play Christmas music almost continually, and when it’s not playing, at least someone in the family is singing some carol or other. We cycle through a bunch of Christmas movies, from the deeply moving Nativity to the wacky and irreverently sweet Elf to classic favorites like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. At every turn, we are reminded how blessed we are to have Christ as our Savior, and how blessed we are to have each other. Personally, I tend to go through the month of December in a state of quiet euphoria, knowing that mine truly is a “wonderful life.”
Yet I’ve also experienced enough of the flip side of Christmas to know that not everyone is euphoric at this time of year. There were years before I met Lisa when Christmas was marred by loneliness or the sadness of a recent breakup. Then there was the Christmas after our nephew, Chad, died of leukemia. His death left a gaping hole which was even more keenly felt at Christmas, and even though the years have dulled that pain, it never fully goes away. Those experiences of loss at Christmas have helped me realize that some Christmas greetings are spoken through clenched teeth and muffled sobs.
Knowing that, I almost feel guilty for being as happy as I am at Christmas. My heart is so incredibly full, and I want to voice my joy and gratitude. Yet I don’t want to rub salt in someone else’s wounds by being too vocal in counting my blessings. Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? Is it insensitive to say with Mary that the Lord “has done great things for me?” (Luke 1:49).
My favorite movie portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge is that of Alistair Sim, done way back in the 1940s or ’50s. Sim brilliantly captures Scrooge’s extreme ugliness before his redemption as well as his absolute giddiness after it. After Scrooge has apologized to Bob Cratchitt and promised to help him and his family, he scowls and says to himself, “I don’t deserve to be so happy!” Then he breaks into another wide grin and chuckles, “I just can’t help it!”
I understand how Scrooge felt. Sinful man that I am, I know I don’t deserve to be so happy. I know there are better men out there who have to deal with difficult situations and hard providences they didn’t bring upon themselves. I know people who feel the pain of divorce, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, and devastating loss at this time which is supposed to be joyous. I also know that I just can’t help the joy I feel this Christmas.
Is it wrong to be happy at Christmas? If it is, I’m afraid I don’t want to be right.
A well-known Christian evangelistic tract begins with the assertion that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I’ve seen it parodied in a variety of ways over the years. For example, someone cautioning Christians not to become overcommitted to church activities changed it to “the church loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I think we can go even broader than that: everyone will love you, if you follow their wonderful plan for your life. It may be the church, a youth minister, a small group leader, a soccer coach, a ballet instructor, a schoolteacher … you name it. These people and groups all tend to have a wonderful plan for your life, and they will all love you to the extent that you follow their plan.
This is, of course, perfectly natural. The people who devote their time to various activities or ministries do so because they enjoy and believe in them. The athletic coach believes that the sport he or she is coaching can teach kids principles of sportsmanship, fair play, discipline, and endurance. The youth minister is passionate about reaching young people for Christ. The church small group leader is excited about building community and a deeper understanding of the Bible. The pastor is committed to ministering to his congregation and the community at large. All of these people believe in what they’re doing, and all of them need help to accomplish their goals. Coaches need parents to bring kids to every practice, to help with snacks or fundraisers or coaching a particular position. Ministers and small group leaders need volunteers to help with various aspects of ministry, and they need committed “congregants” to show up to receive what they have to pass on. Teachers need parents to donate school supplies, make sure homework gets done, help with class projects or field trips, etc.
All of these people need help, so all of these people need you. They each have a “plan for your life,” a definite idea about how you could best be spending your time, and as far as they’re concerned, that plan is “wonderful.” The more you follow that plan, the more they will see you as the model parent, or parishioner, or volunteer. In short, the more time and energy you give them—the more you help alleviate their stress and overcommitment—the more they will “love” you.
Again, all of this is perfectly natural and understandable. The problem is that you have a finite amount of time and energy, and more “wonderful plans for your life” than you can possibly keep up with. If your family is involved in only a couple of activities, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the competing demands on your time.
Most of us try to deal with those competing demands by setting priorities and limiting our level of commitment to each activity, but it’s there that the battle begins. Saying to the coach, teacher, or minister that you can only give this much involves the risk that he or she will only “love” you that much. It means you will be viewed as less “committed” or “dependable” than other volunteers who are willing to give more to that particular activity. It means you will feel the guilt of remaining silent when someone says, “Can anyone help with this?”
Ultimately, limiting your level of commitment to the various “wonderful plans” available to you requires an exceptional level of commitment. If you long to be a good mother, it can be tough to say “no” to chaperoning that field trip—particularly when some other mothers are present at every school activity. If you pride yourself on being a good father, it is painful to feel like the only dad who is not helping coach his child’s team. If you long to serve God faithfully, it can be heart-wrending to think you’re not faithfully giving your time to the church. You begin to wonder what those other moms, dads, and churchgoers think of you. Do they question your commitment? Your love for your kids? Your love for Christ? Faced with those self-doubts and insecurities, it can be easier just to “do a little more” than to keep saying no.
Of course, the trouble is that every decision to “do a little more” is a decision to have a little less time for something else, and therein lies the cost of overcommitment. What are you giving up so you can better follow someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life? Are you sacrificing dinner as a family for a fast-food meal eaten on the run? Are you losing sleep so you can get a little more done? Are you becoming increasingly frazzled and unable to focus on any one thing? Are you giving up time in prayer and personal Bible study so you can be there every time the church doors open? These are all very real costs we must pay in order to “do a little more,” and because there are few people pressuring us to eat with our families or get a good night’s sleep, we find it easier to pay those costs than suffer the sideways glances of the overcommitted people all around us.
As the school year begins again, you’re likely to have all kinds of “sign-up sheets” passed in front of you. Let me caution you to think long and hard before you add your John Hancock to someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life. What you see as a limited commitment, they may see as a pledge of your life, fortune, and sacred honor. Be careful to remain as resolute as Mr. Hancock was in resisting tyranny: namely, the tyranny of the urgent. It’s all too easy to choose the urgent needs of other people’s “wonderful plans” over the truly important things in life. Make that mistake, and you’ll miss the depth of soul and depth of relationship that make life truly wonderful.
Question for my students: What literary device did I use in the last paragraph of this post?
Question for the rest of you: What have you had to say “no” to? How did it cost you the approval of others? Was it worth it?
Update: For more on the need to simplify and focus on what is important, see this excerpt from my devotional, Feet to Follow, Eyes to See.